Making Waves (Part 1)

Anthony Braxton, Falling River Music (363h), 2004–present.

Cues

If the first weeks of the Trump presidency shocked much of the country and world, it was a shock of the expected and promised. To be sure, there have been genuine moments of surprise. No matter how prepared anyone might have been, it boggles the mind to learn how the President of the United States made a “light-hearted” threat to the President of Mexico that he might invade their country to deal with some “bad hombres” or that he seems unaware who Frederick Douglass was, let alone that Douglass died more than a century ago. Even after a year and a half of news cycles dominated by Trump’s now-familiar compound of monomania, corrosive self-doubt, and unabashed white nationalism, it was still startling to watch him move seamlessly from advocating torture to petulantly insisting yet again that his inauguration crowds were the biggest in history, or to see how casually he suggested destroying the career of a state senator who introduced a moderate bill blocking asset seizure prior to conviction.

But amongst all the gasps over “alternative facts” and fictitious massacres, it should be clear that none of the executive orders, appointments, proposed policy, or public statements were in any real sense a surprise. They have enacted almost to the letter the pledges made throughout the campaign, from the Muslim ban, Mexican border wall, amplified deportations, and Dakota Access Pipeline to the immediate (if largely symbolic) measures at defunding the Affordable Care Act and the selection of a Supreme Court nominee off a list made public months ago. This spectacle of executive authority and attempted consolidation of power manifests a breathtaking velocity and ideological literalism with no precedence in American electoral politics, but it is nevertheless precisely what was promised again and again over the past year to anyone who bothered to listen.

However, a focus on the breakneck haste, bluntness, and relative inefficacy with which the administration has been trying to check off the bullet-points of their agenda shouldn’t obscure what else marked those very first weeks: an equally unprecedented speed and scale of popular mobilization against all that the administration represents. Drawing a balance sheet of this is a difficult task, above all for the sheer range of tactics and tendencies involved, but a cursory list goes far beyond the historic crowds at the Women’s March in Washington and across the country and world, from metropoles to tiny Canadian fishing villages. It would also include:

  • the blockade of airports around the country by tens of thousands, whose immediate response and pressure managed what federal court orders could not, freeing those detained by the sudden imposition of the constitutionally illegitimate executive order
  • a taxi strike in New York City (by the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, who represents roughly 18,000 drivers) to support those blockades and demonstrations
  • a widespread boycott of Uber in the wake of their attempted strike-breaking, which, combined with protests at their headquarters, led first to the nervous creation of a $3-million fund in case their own drivers faced detainment and then to their CEO stepping down from Trump’s economic advisory council (and, more recently, from his position at the company itself)
  • the Vaughn prison uprising, where inmates of Delaware’s largest prison seized hostages and control of one of the jail’s buildings, calling reporters to “explain the reasons for doing what we’re doing. Donald Trump. Everything that he did. We know that the institution is going to change for the worse.”
  • the ongoing formation of local self-defense groups ready to confront not only racialized, Islamophobic, and gendered violence and harassment but also ICE raids, especially as the ongoing deportations that gathered speed in the Obama administration has taken a newly visible and more explicitly martial character aimed to terrorize communities on the streets, at their jobs, and in their homes
  • militant antifascist resistance in the days before the inauguration and every day since, including successfully halting Milo Yiannopoulos’s campus talks at Davis and Berkeley (during which undocumented students would have been “outed”/doxxed to the cheers of the crowd)
  • federal workers quietly pushing back, both through a steady stream of leaks1 and through strategies such as that of workers in the Justice Department, who plan to essentially sabotage their new directives by working slow and lodging complaints with the inspector general’s office
  • the New York bodega strike, wherein roughly 1,000 Yemeni-owned bodegas closed for 8 hours in protest of the immigration ban and produced one of the most distinctly pro-American challenges to Trump’s attempted autocracy. (In the words of Nabil Nasher, a deli owner: “Trump, he wants to be like some dictator in the Middle East. It’s not right, it’s the United States! What I hear from him is like what I hear from the president of Yemen for 33 years!”)
  • enough public pressure through phone calls and online furor to force the withdrawal of a GOP-backed bill (pushed by none other than Jason Chaffetz) to sell off 3.3 million acres of national land
  • echoes of the 2006 “day without an immigrant” general strike in Milwaukee and twelve other Wisconsin cities, where Voces de la Frontera Workers’ Center led protests across the state. Three days later, immigrant “community general strikes” erupted in dozens of cities across the United States, including the unlikely candidates of Charlotte, Detroit, New Orleans, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., while the more established seats of migrant organizing in Chicago, New York, and the Southwest have seen student walkouts, disrupted ICE raids, and the constitution of community defense or rapid response networks
  • militant contingents of the international women’s strike (or gender strike, as it was called in Oakland) across the United States, which, in addition to clogging the arteries of major cities and forcing the closure of at least two school districts, mainlined a radical feminism and launched groups dedicated to organizing feminized labor
  • global solidarity demonstrations; numerous daily marches, meetings, self-defense and cryptography workshops, letter-writing campaigns, vandalism, packed town halls, and calling of Senators throughout the country
  • last but certainly not least, punching the words right out of a Nazi’s mouth, resulting in our moment’s greatest work of unplanned propaganda, a meme that can never be seen enough

In a bleak winter, this wave of heterogeneous dissent has been genuinely inspiring. With the exception of the Women’s March, which was planned and carefully orchestrated far in advance, most of these were actions that mobilized people at incredible speed, gathering thousands with at times only hours notice or taking place without any central gathering. To call them spontaneous, however, would obscure the way these rapid articulations of discontent and refusal, most explicitly at the treatment of Muslim and immigrant populations, did not happen in a vacuum. Instead, they have combined self-organization and immediate response with the coordinating efforts of long-standing groups that have been working tirelessly for immigrant rights, prison abolition, living wages, queer liberation, fair housing practice, and access to reproductive and health care for years before Trump lumbered into party politics. Moreover, much of this fierce response to the executive orders has largely eschewed the conventional playbooks for large sanctioned public demonstrations. It has opened instead to tactics, like the bodega strike and the airport blockades, that draw no easy divide between publicly-announced protest, daily life, and the circulation of capital. Or that, like the ongoing “open-mouthed” sabotage2 by federal employees, erodes authority from within without ever stepping into the open, provoking an anxious uncertainty on the part of those trying to manage a very leaky ship of state.

Part of Viewpoint’s commitment has always been to tell the history of the present through a history of struggles, taking our bearings from the constellation of past and current revolutionary activity. In this regard, these past weeks point in striking ways to the necessity of a truly heterogeneous range of tactics in the coming years, suggesting that one of the favorite pastimes of the left – squabbling over which kind of action is uniquely allowed to count, whether it be marches or riots, phone banking or the black bloc, as if any of these were mutually exclusive – deserves to be well and truly scrapped. Yet we’ve been equally committed to trying to understand, as clearly as possible, the composition and strengths of what arrays itself against this range of activity, from the blunt fact of militarized policing to all the varieties of liberal historical amnesia eager to write narratives of revolt purged of any resistance deemed “violent” (but with the gall to currently designate themselves “The Resistance”). In this regard, while we take our cues from the way that individuals and organizations have already shaped the terrain on which they are fighting, we need to recognize that at least so far, the timeline and scope of the struggles has been almost entirely set by the Trump administration itself, producing one familiar shock after another towards which attention and energy quickly shift. If we can discern the nascent form of a united front taking shape between these disparate instances, it is at this point an almost entirely reactive one, following the cues, spurs, and contours of the very tendency we hope to undermine.

The dangers of letting our moves be dictated by a would-be dictator are immediately evident, in at least two ways. First, it exacerbates a tendency to search for salvation amongst those who are equally committed to an ultra-conservative agenda but are merely less explicitly fascistic about the paths to achieving it. This tendency has already become wholly visible in the form of a nearly messianic hope of those “good” Republicans who will choose to save their midterm-election necks by opting for impeachment or of Democratic Party standard-bearers who will, against all historical evidence, radicalize and lead the charge against a Trumpian path to national disaster or nuclear-armed conflict. But as Nancy Pelosi’s frank admission that, “we’re capitalist and that’s just the way it is” indicates, to hang our hopes on this unlikely rescue or to expect that even its modest achievement would in any way align with a struggle against the perpetuity of capital is wishful thinking. And at this moment, such thinking is perhaps the very thing we need less than anything else.

The other danger of letting our actions be articulated, timed, and shaped by the orders passed down from on high is that even if this remarkable wave of organizing persists and mutates, as it seems likely to do so, we run the risk of narrowing the focus of this anger and commitment to only the permutations of electoral politics. In so doing, we would not only reduce our scope to a baleful play of compromise and appeasement, one whose vacuity has been further confirmed by the DNC’s decision to pass over even the moderately progressive Keith Ellison as chair in favor of Tom Perez. We would also divert focus and energy away from the two fronts on which revolutionary organization has to take place simultaneously if it is to mean anything at all. First, against the array of violently reinforced social structures and daily cycles of capital accumulation, whose disruption alone would be able to even slightly force the hands of elected officials. Second, towards a mode that could become indifferent to convincing such officials one way or the other, instead building the coherent strategy and infrastructure of support, self-critique, coordination, and flexibility needed to sustain the organization of a struggle whose timescale is not just the coming days and weeks but years and decades, a century of challenge and revolt, a millennium of life beyond capital in whatever remains of this world. With such high stakes, it is imperative that we take the initiative, which means formulating a clear plan for navigating the chaotic waters that lie ahead.

Blockages

In the fall, we argued that the remnants of the Bernie Sanders movement in the United States were coalescing into a specifically social democratic current, and we examined this in relation to an alternative possibility: that the Sanders movement might become a site of recruitment to the revolutionary left. However, all previous questions about the articulation of this as a movement deserve to be considered anew in the context of both the Trump presidency and the growing and varied resistance to it. For instance, the initial responses to the start of Trump’s term (and the marked swell of new members in the Democratic Socialists of America and other socialist organizations) do speak to the thesis of a social democratic current. Yet they also illustrate the point that a current, which we had previously framed as a “weak form of articulation… with minimal organizational cohesion and direction,” also exists in the dynamic context of distinct movements, sects, organizations, blocs, and other forms of composition – and that dynamic context has the distinct advantage of both surprise and flexibility, suggesting little gained by the particular adherence to social democratic programs and institutional structures.

In this context, any programmatic proposal – that is, any proposal that advocates channeling that diffuse energy and dissent into the frame of a single organization and program, however flexible – demands careful consideration and scrutiny. One such proposal, Seth Ackerman’s “A Blueprint for a New Party,” published in early November, raised some essential questions: How can the left organize, in a lasting and focused way, within the anti-Trump milieu? Can social democratic raw materials, forged in part during the Sanders primary run and now emboldened by the general consensus that the Democratic Party has both failed and proven itself incapable of recognizing that failure, be assembled into a new tool of the working class? In this regard, Ackerman’s article and the interest it generated might serve as a starting point for a discussion within, but also beyond, the social democratic current, because within the defined parameters of an electoral party, his blueprint is probably the most comprehensive and concrete recent attempt to address the obstacles for third party activists.3 To speak directly to strategy and organization is a much more difficult task than simply issuing a call for such things, a symptomatic hallmark of many on the left – ourselves included. Ackerman’s blueprint is thus a real contribution for simply having broached the kind of strategic questions that are all too easy to avoid. Yet we engage with it here from the standpoint that social democracy is hardly the only option for the left, and that both the historical model associated with that name and its fundamental suppositions must also be subject to criticism.

For a disillusioned left-liberal milieu that emerged from the primaries and the election, Ackerman’s proposal addressed core anxieties. By presenting the model of an electoral party for which the ballot line is secondary to local considerations and to the party’s internal accountability, Ackerman offers a solution to a common concern lodged against any party-building attempts in the United States, the possible spoiler effect, and likewise to the more general question of the left’s relation to the Democratic Party. The party, according to Ackerman, will be built on principles and the will of its membership – if it makes sense to run against Democrats, given constraints on third parties, so be it. If not, he leaves open the possibility that a party would, following Sanders’ lead, run a candidate in the Democratic primary. Ackerman’s model includes a detailed outline of how such a party could institutionally and financially sustain itself given current U.S. electoral regulations, which have been designed precisely to prevent any third party from posing a serious electoral threat.

Of course, some of these concrete suggestions are debatable or incomplete, as Ackerman himself often acknowledges. A blueprint is clearly meant only to serve as the beginning of a discussion, and it does that admirably. However, such gaps in vision can be indications of structural limits and so need to be examined more closely to detect their faultlines.

First of all, the new party is supposed to have a distinct relation between party leaders or elected officials and the party base. Ackerman writes that “in a genuinely democratic party, the organization’s membership, program, and leadership are bound together tightly by a powerful, mutually reinforcing connection.” This is not, however, the institutional form that the U.S. electoral system cultivates. While a general call for local party committees and binding programs is appealing enough, it is not at all clear that this is sufficient for achieving accountability. While greater participation would presumably permit local chapters to make endorsement decisions, or not, based on leaders’ adherence to a program, we still lack actual mechanisms for the party base’s control over its representatives. If elected leaders decide simply to abandon the party and become Democrats, they will effectively have used the new party as launching pad for their political careers, having wasted its resources to bolster the tendency against which it works from the start.

Second, Ackerman notes that, as it stands, the focus on procuring ballot lines for third party candidates ends up miring those parties in administrative and bureaucratic work – collecting signatures, filing lawsuits, filing paperwork, etc. While this is no doubt true, the construction of a complex financial architecture – not to mention actual fundraising work – described in Ackerman’s own blueprint appears to be just as taxing for a third party on his model. And while the consideration of local conditions might allow local party cells to take the path of least resistance for getting their candidates on the ballot, this does not obviate signature-collection and other administrative work which, as those who spend their days knocking on doors are painfully aware, can easily bog down an organization without access to a large professional staff.

Finally, if the third party were to achieve electoral success, Ackerman himself shows how easy it is for the major parties to legislate new obstacles into existence, or in the case of Sanders, to turn the entire party apparatus against new entrants, both out in the open and behind the scenes. In other words, the proposal for a working-class party organization oriented toward competition with the major capitalist parties on their own turf runs into practical blockages at every step.

Blueprints

No blueprint, architectural or political, can fully anticipate or account for the difficulties of the actual process of construction.4 But the relevant question is whether the concrete obstacles a plan would face are incidental to the messy complications that arise when trying to realize its aims, or if they are symptomatic of a structural problem lurking there from the start. In order to determine this for proposals such as Ackerman’s, we have to zoom out from the tenets of the plan itself to detect what historical models and precedents are implicit in its approach, and to try to understand what has fundamentally shifted or dissolved since those prior moments and forms it derives itself from. In this case, the framework in which Ackerman is operating is a specific response to the challenges posed in building a labor party, based on relatively successful past models in which the working class was organizationally ascendant. Immediately, that problem of historical distance surfaces. Writing of the attempt to build a U.S. Labor Party during the 1980s and ‘90s, Ackerman notes that, according to one of its organizers, a key challenge was the waning power of the existing union movement. After decades of the further neoliberal erosion of working-class organization, this challenge has become all the more formidable.

The problem, however, is not only the real consequences of that erosion: it is also the understanding of class and historical transformation that undergirds it, along with the very sense of how a “blueprint” would relate to this in the first place. If we want to speak of a working-class party, we need to begin from the working class as it exists, not as we would like it to be.5 Yet what considers itself a blueprint will not and cannot concern itself primarily with a concrete analysis of class composition. Its structure and purpose must be taken as a given, formulated with deference to the architecture of the capitalist state – and the parties which compete on that terrain – rather than from the relationships between classes and factions which must characterize any discussion of organization. In short, the organizational questions it can address are only those posed from above, while those raised from below go unacknowledged.6 Lacking a discussion of just who is to be organized, as well as the relationship between the suggested organization and already existing movements and platforms, Ackerman’s proposal takes it as a given that the central goal of organization is electoral contestation, and that the body of a party comprises individually motivated progressives and leftists. In other words, it holds onto the mythic assumption of U.S. electoral politics, which is that politics is the strategic agglomeration of a bloc through the personal preferences of citizens as abstract individuals.

The need to actually investigate class composition would preclude any such easy taxonomy of forms of struggle. In another Jacobin essay that shares many of the core assumptions of Ackerman’s text, Sam Gindin rightly argues that “social movement unionism” is no panacea for the left, but his reading of the political landscape through the strict categories of union, social movement, and party is rigid and schematic. While concluding that social movement unionism can work in the context of an “institution [that] would work to bring out the best in unions and movements alike,” the easy reduction of struggle into these two forms obscures difficult questions that might generate a more complex image of the organizational terrain. Where do class-based movements end and “social” movements begin? Can we assume that workplace organizations will by necessity supersede the ones generated through struggles around social reproduction? And what kinds of distinctions can we draw between the different kind of groups that often get thrown together under the heading of “social movements”? As we have argued elsewhere, the historical encounter of labor unions with socialist politics was contingent and historically specific, and the broader history of the workers’ movement has generally included many movements linked to non-workplace concerns of the proletariat. Thus if the question of party organization is restricted to the existing institutions of organized labor as a political party’s point of departure, this means that a broad range of potential working class self-activity will be excluded – since the working class has been conflated with unions, rather than organically bound to them.7

The abortive history of American laborism would suggest this mistake is neither only Ackerman’s, nor that of a left in a low ebb of struggle at the end of the 20th century. It plagued the U.S. working class even in its most storied years, when the shop-floor militancy of 1933-1946 reached unprecedented heights and catalyzed rich experiments in third party organization. In the hot summers of 1936 and 1937, the proletariat of this country “launched a sustained offensive that was quite unequalled in American history for its tactical creativity as well as its demonstration of the power of the collective worker in modern industry.”8 These rolling strike waves united multiracial workforces, both native- and foreign-born, composed of varying levels of skill; in the spring of ‘37 alone, 400,000 workers executed 477 sitdowns. But the self-activity of the class rarely brought the CIO striker to the ballot box, despite a sequence of well funded and organized labor initiatives to break with or realign the Democratic Party. To their disappointment, the growth of trade unions did not correlate to the independent electoral activity of the “CIO voter,” in the way that the European workers’ movements concurrently advanced workplace and party organization. As Mike Davis explains in his indispensable Prisoners of the American Dream, this project

failed because it misunderstood the nature of the bonds that attached the European working-class voter to his party. It is not, after all, merely a felicific calculus of self-interest that translates membership in a labor movement into a profound, hereditary commitment. Even the most anemic labor or social democratic party in Western Europe harvests the working class’s deep cultural self-identification with its institutions.9

But the episodic flare-ups in Flint or Ford factories were never accompanied by a dense organizational ecology exhibited by European socialist parties in the Ruhr Valley or beneath the smoggy smokestacks of Berlin. Instead of a wide range of proletarian institutions all across the terrain of social reproduction, ranging from abortion clinics and shoppers co-ops to cultural associations, the American working class fell into the disunity of fragmented social identities, hailed by more durable religious ties or commitments to competing party machineries. If the CIO could suspend cleavages across race and ethnic lines at the workplace, past the factory gates, there was still little of a united working-class counterculture to be found. The problem of the merely “progressive” program for the working class was that it presumed such a subject as something that already existed and was already a known political force, rather than an agent to be constituted.10

Especially given such histories, we would argue that for those who look toward revolution, parties do not primarily exist to compete in elections. If they do run candidates, that is a secondary function. This is because the capitalist state is not a neutral apparatus. We cannot legislate socialism. Winning elections can potentially accomplish some desirable ends: we may secure some basic improvements in our lives, we may manage to alter the terrain of struggle in our favor, and we may heighten contradictions and tensions within the ruling bloc. But if running for office can accomplish specific tactical aims under certain circumstances, we need to be completely sober about the limits of action within the state, always framing these goals in terms of a larger strategic and, for us, revolutionary orientation.

For such an orientation, one of the primary functions of a party is to articulate distinct social forces into a unity, because unity cannot be presupposed or taken as the automatic recognition of interests in common. It must be constructed, and the party historically names a primary form within which people collectively work through this process of articulation, serving as a binding element that holds these disparate forces together. For Ackerman, however, the party does not play this function, not even secondarily. He is speaking to an audience that is already presumed to exist at some level of unity, even if this unity appears to be little more than that of like-minded individuals. So if this form of unity can serve conjunctural needs (as the Sanders campaign may have done), it is nonetheless a necessarily limited intervention which demands supplementary work if it is to be turned toward a longer project of revolution.

Still, aside from the specific problems of Ackerman’s blueprint, there is a risk that lurks behind any contemporary call for the revival of a party: that it will reduce the live question of organization into the goal of mere integration into the state apparatus. For us, the articulating function of the party is primary, and any parliamentary activity is a tactic. To fetishize the tactic alone, as such calls do, means leaving aside any real confrontation with the question of the potentially larger purpose of even an electorally-driven party of the left. Does this party seek to get elected and implement ambitious policy reforms? Or does it want to get better compromises with the existing parties? And if it does champion serious reforms, are those ends in themselves? In short, do we have a blueprint for capitulation, for reform, or for revolution?

Limits

When we pull back from these attempts to lay out a single, coherent organizational path into a social democratic future, we find a current conjuncture where things are far messier, if not often genuinely weird. Enemies find themselves temporarily sharing a putatively common cause, as the old establishment has entered into an unholy and vague alliance with the resistance movements to exorcise Trumpism, forming a diffuse bloc that, taken in full, would run the gamut from CNN and the Koch brothers to CIA and State Department staffers, National Park employees, anarchists, and the Sanders crowd. As the situation feels increasingly intolerable, albeit for wholly different reasons and levels of personal risk for all those involved, many are already laying claim to being a part, if not the nominal leaders, of the movement that will abolish this particular state of things. This, incidentally, was also Marx and Engels’ definition of communism: “not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself,” but ”the real movement which abolishes the present state of things.” But loose homology aside, it is obvious that this broad coalition of anti-Trump resistance is not in any sense a communist movement, a distinction that becomes all the more evident when we look at these very different definitions of the present state of things, of what is so wrong about it, and of just what is in need of abolition.

For liberals and many of those involved in state apparatuses, the problem is rather superficial: the electorate made the wrong choice in electing Trump. Thus, the liberal present is a short one, reaching back to early November or at most to the antics of James Comey and Russian hackers earlier in 2016. When it does extend further back, it relies upon a familiar set of watchwords and conceptions, fixated on the uneducated, the rural, the deindustrialized, the evangelical, and on from there, touching occasionally on genuine dynamics – like the role of a disaggregated white identity that feels itself under threat of erasure – but unable to grasp the historical roots that give such dynamics such ongoing force. Social democrats and communists, conversely, affirm their opposition not just to Trump, but to the world that made Trump possible, if not almost inevitable, as a fascistic response to an overall crisis – a crisis of capitalist accumulation, national imaginaries, and faith in representational governance – in order to manage the apparent chaos.

Yet here a difference emerges, in the scale of historical time. Social democrats go back to the decline of the New Deal consensus and the emergence of neoliberal hegemony in the 1970s. The communist analysis of the current conjuncture is deeper. It doesn’t stop with the election of Trump or the emergence of neoliberalism but instead asks why European social democracy and the American New Deal did not in themselves block the emergence of strong nativist, chauvinist, xenophobic and authoritarian forces.

A comparison with European history is perhaps instructive here, because in that context, social democracy – victorious through much of the 20th century – produced many state leaders with more radical programs than Bernie Sanders. Yet social democracy has never eradicated the possibility of xenophobic right-wing populists rising to prominence. In France, the rise of the far-right Front National happened at the time of its most radical socialist president, Francois Mitterrand, in the 1980s. In Denmark, the poster-child of social democracy, the Danish People’s Party have become the kingmakers of several coalition governments, pushing social democracy to support a law empowering police to strip refugees of their valuables to force them “to pay for their stay.” In Austria, where social democrats have provided the state leader in 30 out of the last 37 years, the post-fascists of the Austrian Freedom Party nearly won the presidency in 2016. In sum, the successes of the far right are an index of social democracy’s limits.

The basic reformist premise that underwrites such social democratic models is to never touch capitalist property and profitability, but instead to redistribute the wealth that arises from capitalist ”growth” within the confines of the nation-state. In times and territories of marked economic growth, social democracy can create comparatively equal societies, without undermining their class character. But since social democracy’s paramount tool and sphere of solidarity is the nation-state, in times of scarcity it always prioritizes the rights and privileges of the citizens of the nation over those of migrants. And in times of war, social democracy has nearly always thrown its weight behind wars and nationalism, starting with World War I.

Furthermore, since capitalism is characterized by recurrent crises, wars, uneven yet combined geographical development patterns, and secular tendencies towards the replacement of labor with labor-saving technologies, times of scarcity remain unavoidable. In times and places of low or negative growth rates and decreased employment, there is less to redistribute and a greater need for redistribution. In such cases, social democracy is left to redistribute the pain, after capital has had it share. Social democracy faces a stark choice: Unless it radicalizes and challenges capitalist property it must attack its own social base, and displace the blame, whether by reference to economic necessity or to scapegoats such as migrants, criminals, or the unemployed.

After trying and miserably failing to solve the crisis of the 1970s through old Keynesian measures, social democracy gradually adopted neoliberalism as the only economic theory fit for restoring capitalist profits. Thus, European Social Democrats retrenched welfare, and flexibilized labour markets in the name of “good economic management” and the “necessity” of restoring growth through profitability. While this strategy did contradict the historical promises of social democracy, it was nevertheless fully consistent with its historical mission, in which redistribution was always premised on capitalist growth. The effects of this strategy were devastating for political class composition, and helped demobilize, depoliticize, and disorganize the working classes. The reason this strategy was rarely met with massive resistance was that “asset-price Keynesianism” started to kick in and allowed large sections of the population to live off the increased value of their homes and access to cheap credit, not just in countries where the bubble burst (the US and Spain are prime examples), but also in places where it persists (such as the UK and Denmark). But when the financial crisis swept over Europe in 2008, “good economic management” became another term for the state saving the banks while passing the bill on to its constituents. This time, in order to deflect the blame and stop the defection of voters to the far right, many social democratic parties began scapegoating migrants and the unemployed, weakening the basis of the solidarity that makes the social democratic agenda possible in the first place. European Social Democracy has created the conditions for the emergence of the European far right in more ways than one.

Historically, social democracy has presented itself as an alternative to communism, but in reality social democratic politics were always dependent on the communist threat.11 Capital’s willingness to strike compromises with social democracy was always inspired by its fear that failing to do so would push the organized working class towards communism. It is no coincidence that the most progressive class compromises were made at times of communist ascendancy, as in the 1930s United States and post-war Europe, or that the decline of European Social Democracy accelerated with the decline of the internal and external communist threat. Another more well-known condition of social democracy was the post-war boom, which the prespective of the longue-durée shows was an exception in capitalist history. Today, the scope for reformism is radically diminished as redistribution runs up against low profit rates and Keynesian debt financing has to rely on deregulated and volatile global financial markets. In today’s low-growth economy, the reform programs of left-social democrats such as Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn of the British Labour Party (distinct as they are) would require both a will and a capacity to break radically with capitalist interests, i.e. to risk provoking processes of rupture rather than reform. In all likelihood, progressive social democratic leaders would either have to turn against the promises of social democracy, or overcome social democracy itself, by abandoning reformism.

The main historical limit of social democracy is its unwillingness to challenge capitalist profitability. Such a challenge is no mean feat, because it would challenge capitalist reproduction within a territory and would spell misery unless accompanied by the development of non-capitalist relations of survival, which in turn would only become sustainable through the development of a non-capitalist mode of reproduction. To achieve such a rupture would require a very high level of coordinated action and transnational solidarity, a profound subversion of dividing lines around race, gender, nationality, and ethnicity that social democracy – historically steeped in the figure of the white male worker – has rarely challenged unless pushed. Again, we can begin to understand how the abolition of the world that made Trump possible will require a radical transformation of the long present, characterized not only by capitalism (rooted in the long past and continual expropriations of the commons), but also by the global color and gender lines, products of a long history of patriarchy, colonialism and imperialism.

Given the historical marginalization of social democracy in the United States, and the decline of European Social Democracy, it is no surprise that the word “revolution” was eventually dropped into the halcyon idyll of the American home by Bernie Sanders and his new organization. The call for revolution was hyperbolic, to be sure, yet it may also have been symptomatic of the re-emergence of an old mole to challenge the current weaknesses in the reformist path. Because the word revolution cannot help but invoke the spectre of communism, among those empowered or disappointed by this new social democratic current alike, more and more may begin to ask: what is communism, and what is communist practice?


  1. Including a rare instance that actually deserves to be called ironic: members of Sean Spicer’s staff leaking the story about how he seized their phones to try and determine who was leaking details from their meetings… 

  2. The term (le sabotage par la méthode de la “bouche ouverte”) was popularized by Emile Pouget in his foundational 1890s texts on sabotage to designate the way that workers fight back by releasing “behind the scenes” details of their places of employment. 

  3. Indeed, Sam Gindin, Jason Schulman, and others have also pushed the question of party organization in the pages of Jacobin

  4. This question of the blueprint and its limits also shows itself within the history of attempts at a radical communist architecture. In Svetlana Boym’s description of Tatlin’s Tower: “instead of speculating on the technical feasibility of its construction, a subject that has preoccupied many architects and others over the years, it is more productive to think about the tower’s actual history as a model and a project that opened up a new dimension of this intermediary and transitional architecture, which also may be called an architecture of possibility. “Project,” in the case of the tower, was not an end in itself, but neither was it an impasse. It was a crucible of possibilities and inspirations, not a utilitarian blueprint.” In Architecture of the Off-Modern (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008), 23. 

  5. This also means, for instance, working to dismantle the incoherent and dangerous ideals so central to the liberal narrative about Trump’s ascendency, especially those that suggest that only low-income or unemployed rural or Rust Belt whites count as “the working class,” while entirely removing black and Latinx populations from consideration. 

  6. 2016 was a year in politics profoundly marked by such misprision, if we consider the reports of how the Clinton campaign continually ignored all proposals, let alone signs of looming failure, from their local organizers on the ground in favor of a “one-size-fits-all” approach to bungling the election. See, for instance, Edward-Isaac Dovere’s succinct account in Politico

  7. Which is to say that the forms of struggle different kinds of workers assume is a necessarily historical question. It may be that the revival of workers’ struggles will not take the form of mass unionization, and we will have to remain open to the possibility that other forms of struggle might take the lead, and the working class should not be confused with institutional mediations of one particularly modest sector. Nor, in this light, can the distinction between parties and movements (union and otherwise) be mapped onto a simple division between politics and civil society. 

  8. Mike Davis, Prisoners of the American Dream (London: Verso, 1986), 60. 

  9. Davis, Prisoners of the American Dream, 97-9. 

  10. While the theory of the Second International had suggested a strict division of labor between the trade union ‘transmission belts’ and the political centralizer of the party, this distinction broke down in practice. Matriculation from the union to party was often checkered, but unwaged women often made the party their political home when issues such as the price of food or housing were taken up. It’s not that these women leapt over the Trade Union “schools for socialism,” as Kautsky called them, but that their particular encounter with “the incessant struggle against capitalism” just happened to be organized under the chief agent of political composition, rather than an auxiliary organization. 

  11. In the following section, we will consider the relation between these terms and that of socialism, both in terms of working against a stagist conception of revolution (which involves a passage first into state socialism and then into communism) and of the particular stakes of such a conception in the American context. 

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